The Lasting Effects of Friends
Friends. They hover around your kid several hours each day at school, on sports teams, and through other adolescent activities. The impact and influence they wield on one another is undeniable.
New research is showing that influence can be wildly positive…and potentially troubling.
In a survey of more than 1,000 parents of kids ages 4-17, the Barna Group found that kids spend their after school hours (from dismissal bell to dinner bell) in a variety of ways. Unsurprisingly, a large portion of them (65%) spend time doing homework while a lot of them (64%) also watch TV and/or movies. But they’re not alone; 22% of kids spend a portion of most afternoons “hanging out with friends” and there’s no doubt the numbers increase when factoring in activities such as “texting with friends,” something 27% of them do and “playing organized sports,” which 23% of them do.
Unless your child is truly alone, he or she is spending formative time with friends. That’s neither good nor bad on its own, but the results can be both.
Let’s start with the good.
New research supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Mental Health claims that having a best friend while young might mean having happiness and health when older.
The study interviewed 169 diverse adolescents at age 15 and then again at age 16 to determine who their friends were, the quality relationship shared, and the teenager’s overall state of mental health. Almost a decade later, when the kids were 25, the researchers interviewed them one more time. Kids who had a close/strong friend during their teen years instead of just a group of peers around them had “higher levels of self-worth and lower levels of social anxiety and depression.”
Translation: having lots of friends may make you popular, but having good friends may keep you healthy.
In addition to the relationship, which was crucial in and of itself, researchers also believe that the effort and skill required to initiate, cultivate, and protect a relationship were equally important to the young adult’s later health. Citing the critical timing of identity formation during adolescence, Dr. Rachel Narr, one of the project’s leading researchers, says, “It gives these kids the knowledge that they can build these extra-family relationships.” In other words, forging long-lasting friendships helps kids learn social abilities that serve them well down the road. But those abilities don’t make every kid invincible.
Here’s the bad news.
Every teenager is susceptible to the risk and effects of depression, but girls seem far more vulnerable than boys. In May of this year, the Journal of Translational Psychiatry released a report that studied the episodes of depression in teenagers between 2009 and 2014. They found that 13.6% of teenage boys experienced depression…while a whopping 36.1% of teen girls did. Several possibilities factor into the increasing rates of depression among teens, for example, puberty, stress, and of course, friends…especially friends who struggle with depression.
But boys go through puberty, fight bouts of stress, and have friends. Why do girls suffer from depression more frequently? Several reasons may explain the staggering difference between the genders, but researchers point to the very nature of girls as one possible explanation. After all:
- girls tend to be more sensitive to distress in the lives of others
- girls are exposed to a wider variety of stressors
- girls internalize and ruminate more in response to stress
- girls are less likely to employ humor as a way to cope with stress
In no way should this be translated as “girls are weak.” The reality is, many girls are able to model a wonderful amount of empathy for hurting friends, but they can also fall victim to a friend’s struggles in the process.
But that’s where parents and youth workers can make big impact, themselves. We can leverage our relationship with our kids to help steer them past potential trouble from certain friends toward the benefits that come from great friends. Here are just a couple of simple ideas.
Insert yourself into the lives of your kids’ friends. No, this doesn’t mean you crash every sleepover, nor does it mean you stalk your kids’ friends. Inserting yourself into their lives doesn’t have to be abrasive. It might be as simple as following your kids’ friends on social media. It could also include meeting new “friends” even if they never become more than acquaintances. But make sure you elevate your game from time to time to include doing stuff with them. Take in a movie together and go for ice cream afterwards to discuss it. Set out on a spontaneous road trip to make some fun memories. The underlying goal is that you get some precious contact time with the kids who are influencing your child.
Frequently teach your kids about the influence friends have on us. You can use yourself as an example and talk about whether you were a “leader” or a “follower” when it came to friends. And don’t forget to share how that impacted you, whether good or bad. While discussing friends, a deeply personal issue for many teens, make sure you aren’t lecturing or wagging your finger to get your point across. In fact, the best way to teach is to ask great questions. If you want a few free resources that tackle the topic from a biblical perspective, The Source for Youth Ministry has tons! Here’s a MUSIC DISCUSSION about choosing good friends. Here’s a MOVIE CLIP DISCUSSION that lists qualities of great friends. (There are many more on this topic. Just go to our MOVIE CLIP DISCUSSIONS page and search by the title of “friendship.”) Whatever you choose to do, do it frequently so they are equipped to make wise choices.
We know that friends have a long term effect on our kids. Let’s make sure we’re doing all we can to steer that towards a positive future.
David R. Smith
David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.